REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness

NON-SPOILER Review of Star Trek Into Darkness:

It’s good, see it.

SPOILER Review of Star Trek Into Darkness:

After the jump.

***

I’m going to start with the negative and move on to the positive but I don’t want that to leave the impression that the negatives outweigh the positives for me.

Star Trek Into Darkness has a much more complicated story than Star Trek (the previous movie), owing to the fact that Into Darkness has three different sides in conflict with each other, not just two.  There are our heroes — Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Enterprise; there are Admiral Marcus and Section 31; and finally there is John Harrison — a.k.a. Khan Noonian Singh.  This opens up a lot of fascinating opportunities, because at various points two of the sides find themselves with a common cause against the other.  Unfortunately, it also opens the possibility conflict will be ill-defined and difficult to understand.  To the extent that Star Trek Into Darkness falls apart for me, this is the cause.

I’m at a bit of a loss about what each of the three sides is trying to accomplish and why.  That’s with the advantage of being familiar with Khan and Section 31.  A Star Trek neophyte wouldn’t know anything about either one (even casual viewers of the series probably don’t know Section 31), and they would be none the wiser after seeing this movie.

Of the three sides, Admiral Marcus and Section 31 seem easiest to understand.  Marcus is so spooked by the Klingon threat and the destruction of Vulcan that he is trying to change Starfleet from the “peacekeeping and humanitarian armada” — that’s how Pike described it in the first movie, sort of a Peace Corp in space — into a proper military.  He’s manipulative but he doubts he has the cunning to face the Klingons so when he finds Khan he thaws him out and tries to manipulate him into protecting Earth.

Next, there’s the crew of the Enterprise.  They’re supposedly disciples of Captain Pike and agree with his high-minded vision of a peaceful Starfleet.  The problem is that their leader, Kirk, doesn’t quite seem to get this vision.  Intellectually he knows Pike is right, Spock and McCoy push him in that direction, but he’s also a maverick who doesn’t obey the rules and a man of action who reacts to danger aggressively.

This is all consistent with Kirk’s character, doubly so because the Chris Pine version is supposed to angrier and more reckless.  The problem is that I don’t believe Admiral Marcus would see Kirk as an opponent who needs to be eliminated.  I think he would see Kirk as a potential ally, a very useful one. When Kirk brings Marcus Khan’s location and all but demands permission to chase him down, I don’t see why Marcus would react by betraying Kirk to the Klingons.  What does Marcus gain by letting the Klingons destroy the Enterprise at that time?  Instead of corrupting Pike’s talented protege and buying time to continue his military build-up, his plan seems to be get the only starship captain who isn’t already dead killed, destroy his second most powerful starship, and go to war with the Klingons right away.  Either I’m missing something, or Marcus’s motivation doesn’t make any sense.  (The third possibility is that Marcus needed Khan to do his strategic planning because Marcus knows he’s a total moron.)

Then there’s Khan.  Initially, Khan’s motivation is to save his people from Marcus, who is basically holding them hostage to control Khan.  That makes Khan exceedingly sympathetic at first.  Even Kirk feels for him.  What is never clear in the movie is what Khan would do next if he got what he wanted.  This is key information.  The conflict between Khan and Marcus is clear, but the conflict between Khan and Kirk is exceedingly vague without knowing what threat Khan would pose if he managed to thaw out his 72 lackeys and lackettes.  Part of the problem is that we don’t really know who Khan is in this context.  The movie doesn’t even bother to provide his backstory (okay, the part where he’s from 1996 is a little hard to explain these days).  But even if you know the backstory, it doesn’t really help.  This isn’t the unhinged maniac bent on revenge that we know from The Wrath of Khan.  Nor is he the ruthless autocrat from “Space Seed” who wants to steal the Enterprise and use to to subjugate a colony world — the Federation has messed with him too much for him let it slide.  There’s got to be some kind of retribution, but 73 supermen can’t conquer the entire Federation, and Khan is not blinded enough by revenge to try.  In the film, Spock suggests that Khan would commit genocide against those he considers inferior, but that doesn’t sound much like Khan either.  In “Space Seed” we’re told he was quite benevolent as dictators go, and specifically that there were no massacres on his watch, nor did he start any wars.

So what we’re left with is a clearly defined Khan-Marcus conflict, but a murky Kirk-Marcus conflict, and a Kirk-Khan conflict which is very ill-defined.  On a narrative level, it makes for a pretty jumbled movie.

However, on the character and thematic levels, Star Trek Into Darkness really shines.  In his review of the film in the New York Times, film critic A. O. Scott takes the film to task for “the militarization of Star Trek.”  The militarization of Star Trek is a huge pet peeve of mine as well.  I’ve always felt that Starfleet, despite having a military command structure, is not a military organization.  It is far too dedicated to science and diplomacy, abhors violence, and values individualism too much.  Certain Star Trek writers, the producers of Deep Space Nine, for example, have seen it differently.  I’ve always believed that Deep Space Nine was a good show, but a mediocre Star Trek show, because of this flaw.  But I don’t have the same complaint about Star Trek Into Darkness.  I feel that the writers and director agree with me and A. O. Scott about militarization.  To me, the movie seems to explicitly criticize militaristic interpretations of Star Trek — and the American militarism of the past decade as well.

The fact that the movie is dedicated to the veterans of post-9/11 wars makes me think J. J. Abrams means Admiral Marcus to be a reflection of the way the US acted after 9/11 when we were scared.  It was clear in the first movie that the destruction of Vulcan was a 9/11 for the new Star Trek universe, and in this movie the Klingons are the Taliban or Iraq.  They aren’t directly connected to the thing that’s got everyone so worked up, but they’re mean, they’re out there, and we’re feeling paranoid so we’re going to go get them.  Marcus’s military build-up is a reaction to the destruction of Vulcan, but he justifies turning his sights on the Klingons by claiming war is inevitable, supporting that statement with a less than impressive list of Klingon accomplishments (since we encountered them they’ve invaded two planets we know of, etc.)  For those of you who are counting, humans first encountered the Klingons 108 years earlier, so that’s about one planet every 50 years.  This is the equivalent of Saddam’s WMDs.

The connection to the War on Terror is made explicit when Spock lectures Kirk about the immorality of using a new type of photon torpedo to kill a Federation citizen without trial from a great distance away.  The allusion to drone attacks couldn’t be more blatant.

So the question is, what will the Federation’s War on Terror look like?  Will they make the moral decision to put what they value ahead of their personal safety, and prove that mankind has really evolved?  Or will they prove that human beings are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past forever?  Marcus claims he went to Khan for his intellect, but Khan knows that it’s really his capacity for savagery that Marcus needed, whether he knew it or not.  Is that savagery necessary for humanity’s survival, or is there a better way?  Those are the questions the film is asking, in the finest tradition of allegorical Star Trek episodes like “A Private Little War” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”  Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek so he could talk to average TV viewers about serious issues by thinly disguising them with the trappings of science fiction.  J. J. Abrams shied away from that in the previous movie, but he does Roddenberry proud in this one.

The movie also does a fantastic job with the characters.

Kirk develops a lot here.  This is a younger, angrier Kirk than we’re used to and the writers could have used that fact as an excuse to throw the original series characterization out the window, but instead they really use the TOS material.  Because of the nature of that series (and of TV shows at that time) that requires them to really read between the lines of the stories and William Shatner’s performances.  When Kirk hot-headedly disregards Spock’s warnings about the immorality of revenge only to be belatedly convinced, they are evoking Kirk’s character arc in “Arena,” and his moment of doubt when he tells Spock, “I don’t know what I should do, I only know what I can do,” reminded me a lot of a similar moment with McCoy in “Balance of Terror.”

Kirk and Spock’s friendship is very touching.  I’m sure K/S ‘shippers will be delighted that Spock shows more emotion about Kirk than he does about his romance with Uhura.  You can see how much their friendship is changing both of them, as they try over and over to think about what the other one would do in that situation.  This culminates in an absolutely brilliant reversal of roles — Spock’s sacrifice at the end of Wrath of Khan becomes Kirk’s sacrifice here, with a few lines taken verbatum from the earlier movie but coming out of the other character’s mouth, right down to Spock being the one who screams, “Khaaann!”  The idea of Spock actually becoming Kirk is new one, never attempted on the original series, but it seems to be very cathartic for Spock.  Kirk, for his part, gains some enlightenment from the reversal of roles, a capacity for detachment.  In any event, they seem more comfortable when they return to their traditional roles at the end of the film, having walked a mile in each other’s shoes.

The supporting cast gets a little more to do in this movie as well.  We get to see Uhura’s sensitive side, as her relationship disintegrates because of Spock’s coldness, as well as her badass side as she tries to talk her way past a squad of Klingons alone.  Scotty really gets a chance to be a hero and save the day.  There’s a quality of James Doohan’s Scotty that is missing from Simon Pegg’s version — Pegg plays Scotty entirely for laughs, while Doohan was usually jolly but showed a hard-edged side when things got tough (his threat to destroy a civilization in “A Taste of Armageddon” or his game of chicken with a Klingon ship in “Friday’s Child” come to mind as examples).  We may see a little of that here, but this Scotty is not the obvious choice to take charge of the ship with Kirk and Spock are away.  That job falls to Sulu in his movie, probably because that character eventually ends up commanding a ship of his own.  Sulu gets a nice moment bluffing Khan, and we see the character’s natural gravitas in John Cho’s performance.  As for Chekov, he gets to flail like a fish out of water as he tries to run engineering, not the most meaty material, but not awful either.

I’m not sure why they bothered to include Carol Marcus in this movie.  It seemed like she would be a love interest for Kirk (considering she’s the mother of his son in the old timeline).  But then nothing happens.  Kirk doesn’t seem any more attracted to her than to a dozen other women in the movie, and she doesn’t show any interest at all.  The (somewhat notorious) scene where she strips down to her underwear in a shuttle is the only thing passing for intimacy between them, and I couldn’t tell whether Carol was testing Kirk, making a strange pass at him, or just suddenly feeling warm.  It was fan service, pure and simple.  Initially I wondered if the mystery torpedoes might be Genesis Devices developed by Carol and if Admiral Marcus was setting Kirk up to destroy all of Kronos, not just Khan’s location.  That would have explained why she was so interested in them.  Instead she’s poking around the torpedoes because of a more generalized suspicion of her father.

Finally, there is Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonian Singh.  I’m not the biggest fan of the idea of bringing Khan back for this movie, but I think it was handled about as well as it could have been.  Cumberbatch’s intensity as Khan is genuinely frightening.  You can feel that this man has been genetically engineered to be smarter and stronger than the average human, and he has the outsized ego and ambition to go along with it.  That’s the original concept of Khan, but it comes across better in Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance than it did in Ricardo Montalban’s.  That’s no insult to Montalban — the fact that Kirk outwits Khan twice undercut the idea that Khan was really so superior in that version — it’s just a different choice that was made in this film, and it works.  If they had to bring Khan back, I’m glad they did something different with him.  It was fascinating to see him and Kirk on the same side for part of the film.  Kirk and Khan’s mutual respect in “Space Seed” had a lot more dramatic potential  than their antipathy in Wrath of Khan so I’m glad the film’s writers decided to get back to that.  I’ve already mentioned that I had trouble figuring out what menace Khan posed beyond the fact that, well, he’s Khan, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying Cumberbatch’s performance or sympathizing with Khan and the position Starfleet has placed him in.  I still would have preferred that they had made John Harrison a new villain but I can’t argue with the results.  My only complaint is that it’s a bit offensive to have an Englishman play a villain who’s supposed to be Indian (whereas having a Latino play him is just clueless).

Other thoughts on the movie:

  • “Into Darkness” seems to mean there are less lens flairs.  Slightly.
  • Admiral Marcus and Section 31’s fascination with Khan makes especially good sense when you consider how keen 31 was to recruit Julian Bashir, who was also genetically enhanced.  I’m not sure if the link is intentional or if it only exists in my head, but it worked for me.
  • When Kirk was revived from death, I would have sort of enjoyed as scene of Spock reacting in happiness to his apparent resurrection, like in “Amok Time.”
  • For those of who argue Kirk’s death scene was cheapened by his resurrection, I would point out that Spock’s death scene in Wrath of Khan works fine in spite of the fact that he was resurrected too.
  • Gene Roddenberry believed that it was bad storytelling to resolve the conflict in a story by killing the villain, because you don’t need to be right to win by killing your enemy.  You can see this in most Classic Trek and TNG episodes, but Star Trek movies have a terrible track record (in the eleven previous movies, the only villains who live are V’Ger in The Motion Picture and the Probe in The Voyage Home).  So, I was happy to see Khan still alive at the end of this movie.
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